‘Making a Murderer’ makes a mess

The city of Manitowoc, Wisconsin occupies just a shade under 18 square miles of the United States’ almost 4 million. Its long-held claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of the ice cream sundae, a title disputed among several American cities. Its Rahr-West museum houses works from Miro, Dali, Picasso and ostensibly the only remaining fragment from the Russian Sputnik IV, which fell from its orbit all the way to a street nearby the museum. All this to paint the picture of a relatively small town with some culture, character and space junk. It was not until the Dec. 18 release of the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” that Manitowoc became infamous.

The documentary focuses on the case of Steven Avery. Avery served 18 years in prison for a sexual assault charge for which he was exonerated. He then filed a lawsuit against Manitowoc County for $36 million. Shortly after filing, Avery was charged with the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer who visited the Avery family property. The two filmmakers responsible for the Netflix series intended their documentary as a window into the American justice system as a whole, they said in a phone interview with the New York Times. What the series certainly has accomplished is creating a degree of chaos for local public officials flooded with outrage and disdain from the American public over email, phone and social media.

Using an online traffic-tracking software (similarweb), I found that the city of Manitowoc’s website experienced a massive uptake in visitors from November, at approximately 3,000 for the month, to around 20,000 in December, corresponding to the Dec. 18 premier date of “Making a Murderer.” Oak Creek’s website, a city in Wisconsin similar to Manitowoc in terms of population, received around 5,000 during the same period in December. Why is this important? There was a time not so long ago in our history when people not only felt more inclined to mind their own business, but they had little choice other than to do so. When Facebook posts on the Manitowoc County sheriff’s page begin condemning local officials, referring to them as “worms” and expressing hopes that they burn eternally, one must question the motivation behind actions such as this, and whether this particular type of social activism has any worth at all.

Beginning with the motivation, I would posit that the vast majority of social activism conducted on the internet is done to benefit the poster, not the cause to which it relates. That is to say, the internet has created an outlet for the activism-deprived to get their fix literally without the need to lift more than one finger. None of this is new. We have been debating the worth and role of the internet in our lives since its beginning. However, the events in Manitowoc shed light on the fact that the small town no longer exists in the traditional sense of the phrase. While Manitowoc is only 18 square miles, Steven Avery’s case has ballooned this small town into the public consciousness of a much, much, larger area. In the eyes of the filmmakers this could certainly be viewed as a success; they brought a potential injustice to light and into the minds of the American public.

The makers of the documentary should not necessarily be blamed for the hateful vitriol streaming into Manitowoc, but they are responsible to a degree. Really, this case should serve as an informative example of what not to do when it comes to social and political activism conducted online.

So what should one do? First, study more than one point of view. “Making a Murderer,” as the former prosecutor involved in Avery’s murder case stated, is more an advocacy piece than a documentary. Second, form an understanding of the opposition’s reasoning, especially if it is fraught with error. Third, and this goes for all online interactions, consider if you would ever say something like this to someone’s actual face.

I personally placed a call to the Manitowoc Area Visitor and Convention Bureau, and the weekend volunteer who answered seemed distressed upon learning that I was a reporter. Before I even began to ask, she said that it was unlikely she would be able to answer any of my questions. She herself claimed to have not received any calls regarding the Steven Avery case; she was, however, eager to recommend the Maritime and Rahr-West museum as Manitowoc’s most popular tourist destinations.